When I asked Professor Linda Duxbury from Carleton University for an interview to write this blog post, I e-mailed her on a Sunday night. My excuse was that writing for Research2Reality is a second job that I only work on outside of regular work hours… but, according to Duxbury’s study, many people do the same for their day jobs.
The study, which surveyed 1,500 highly educated managers and professionals in six different organizations, found that the average worker spends about a third of their time checking e-mail, often at home.
Needless to say, Duxbury insisted on a phone interview during regular work hours.
Technology has made it easy to have access to e-mail no matter where you are. Although this may seem convenient at first, it can very easily get out of hand, leading to the feeling that you should be available 24/7.
In Duxbury’s study, over 50% of surveyed workers reported work overload and high levels of stress, much of it associated with reading and answering e-mails. Workers felt there were unrealistic expectations for all e-mails to be answered by end of day, even if most of them were neither urgent nor even important.
One in five workers confessed they thought weekly about leaving their jobs.
Constant e-mail checking has also been found to negatively impact productivity, as tasks are interrupted before you even have time to really focus on anything. If you’re anything like me, as soon as that little “new message” icon appears on my phone, you feel an overwhelming urge to see what it is.
“It’s like an addiction,” says Duxbury. “There is a little surge of dopamine when we check our e-mail.”
Given these results, it seems like something needs to change in our workplace culture.
In France, a law was passed earlier this year giving workers the “right to disconnect” – that is, the right to ignore all work-related e-mails during non-work hours. But Duxbury says that with no consequences for breaking it, the law may as well not exist.
“If there is still the feeling that you need to answer e-mails at all hours in order to be seen as productive, people will still do it.”
Duxbury praises companies that completely shut down their servers after regular work hours.
“These companies have a real commitment to work-life balance.”
But until this type of behaviour is the norm, there are some things we can do to manage e-mail related stress.
One strategy is to set aside time at specific points of the day for e-mail. Put it into your calendar and only check your e-mail during these times. Turn off notifications so you don’t see when a new e-mail comes in at other times.
Second, encourage your workplace to develop and enforce e-mail etiquette guidelines. Have set rules for who is allowed to e-mail everyone or what is a reasonable response time.
“One has to keep in mind that e-mail is a tool – it’s not your boss.”